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This Little Owl Wants You To Rethink Your Halloween Strategy

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Western screech owl recovering from his Halloween scare | Photo: Alison Hermance, WildCare

It's not unusual to see owls as a theme on Halloween. But you might not expect an owl to include himself in your household's holiday decorations. The western screech owl pictured here did just that not too long ago, with potentially disastrous results.

It turns out that fake spider webbing you can spread over trees and shrubs is a pretty effective trap for owls, as well as other birds. That's what this owl found out when he attempted to land in a shrub that had been decorated by residents of the Marin County city of Novato.

This owl was lucky; his story had a happy ending. That's not the case for all animals that get caught in similar circumstances, and the San Rafael-based wildlife rescue group WildCare hopes his ordeal will serve as a reminder to take animals into account when you do your holiday decorating.

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That fake spider webbing with its tangles of synthetic fiber can quickly entangle any bird or other animal that gets as much as a toenail snagged. By the time those Novato homeowners found that their festive webbing had caught something, the owl here was completely entangled, hanging upside down, unable to do anything but stare at them.

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Western screech owl snared in decorative spider webbing | Photo: Dave Stapp, Marin Humane Society

The homeowners promptly called the Marin Humane Society, whose officer was able to free the owl, which -- on arrival at WildCare -- turned out to be uninjured and feisty enough that workers had to sedate him before they could remove the remaining fibers and check for other injuries.

It's not just fake Halloween spiderwebs that can ensnare or entrap wildlife: anything with entangling fibers, loops or mesh can be a deathtrap for wildlife, especially for adventurous and unafraid birds like the western screech owl, Megascops kennicotti, found throughout coastal California. Western screech owls are not afraid of the likes of you, as shown in this video of an unperturbed owl in Orange County:

The little owls -- maxing out at about nine inches tall -- occasionally take prey bigger than themselves, like ducks and rabbits, so that gives you an impression of their general attitude. Though they do pretty well in suburban gardens and settled areas, the Cornell Ornithological Lab lists habitat loss from urban development as one of the major threats to the western screech owl.

Putting tangly fake spiderwebs on shrubs where western screech owls might land certainly qualifies as habitat loss, at least at the micro level. And that's true of any bird capable of entanglement -- which is most of them. That's why, three years after that little owl found himself having a bad day in Novato, WildCare is using his experience to alert Californians to the downside of decorations that are unsafe for wildlife.

As for that little owl? He was lucky: X-rays revealed him to be none the worse for his experience. After a night of recuperation he was released in the same yard in Novato, which the worried residents had hastily de-decorated.

We get happy endings so seldom, and WildCare thoughtfully videotaped this one. Happy Halloween.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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